Saturday, 5 September 2009

Geert Wilders, Tariq Ramadan and the future of Islam in Europe

With the recent upheaval around the removal of Tariq Ramadan from his posts as advisor to the Rotterdam Municipality and visiting professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam (see post of 18 August 2009), there has also been renewed attention for the 'phenomenon' Geert Wilders and his PVV (Party for Freedom and Progress).

In an op-ed piece for the leading national daily NRC Handelsblad, Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam, a book on the assassination of Theo van Gogh and Occidentalism, a study of Anti-Western rhetoric and discourse, questions whether those sympathetic to Wilders' positions are fully aware of the implications of such implicit support and cautions against possible consequences. Buruma also points to the often ignored fact that Wilders' views on foreigners and immigration are no longer confined to what is conventionally regarded as his support base: the political right:

"The fear of being overwhelmed by foreigners is usually associated with the right. Historically this is true. The so-called saviours of our civilisation - against the Bolsheviks, the Jews or the decadent elites - have usually come from right-wing circles.

The perceived threat of Islam has changed this. They may consider themselves too chic to associate themselves directly with Wilders, but these days it is often people from a left-wing background who rail the most against Islam"

[In this context I should also mention thatNRC Handelsblad has reported a speculative but interesting contribution by anthropologist Lizzy van Leeuwen, arguing that Wilders' political agenda is in part informed by 'unresolved issues' resulting from his own ethnic origins. The full article on Wilder's roots in the former Dutch East Indies can be found in De Groene Amsterdammer.]

Buruma's article contains also a number of welcome caveats, warning against depictions of 'Islam' as a monolithic bloc and an attempt to come to a more balanced assessment of Tariq Ramadan. Here are some excerpts.

"The alarming image of Eurabia, which Wilders and others like him are holding up to their voters, is often based on a categorical confusion. A recent article in an American publication referred to criminal behaviour but young immigrants in Amsterdam as a 'war against the West', as if rioting there was part of a worldwide jihad. Religious orthodoxy, or neo-orthodoxy, is also often equated with ideological extremism, as if there was potential assassin behind every bearded Wahabi, every veiled woman"

"...the strict, purist form of Islam propagated and funded by Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with the traditions of Anatolia or the Rif mountains. This kind of neo-orthodoxy appeals above all to second generation immigrants, those who were born in Europe but don’t quite feel ‘at home’ there yet. Wahabist purism is not an old tradition, let alone Moroccan. It is a relatively modern ‘born again’-type religion that is propagated over the internet, often in English, and appeals to people who don’t feel at home anywhere."

"The political extremism of groups like Al Qaeda isn’t traditional either. Most conservative Muslims disapprove of Osama Bin Laden’s religious pretences. Political Islam has been influenced by many ideas in the past one-hundred years, including Marxism. I’m not saying this to defend political Islam, which is certainly dangerous. But the danger would be even greater if we look at the fight against violent political Islam the way Wilders does: as a clash of civilisations, a Kulturkampf against Islam as a whole."

"Of course the link between Islam and violence is not always imagined. People are being killed in the name of jihad. Some neo-orthodox Muslims are recruited for the Holy War. It is worrisome that some European Muslims, especially the young, sympathise with such holy warriors. And the violent threats against critics of Islam are an essential problem that the government needs to be firm against. Still, it will always be necessary to distinguish between religion and revolution, between orthodoxy and violence. There is no room for this distinction in Wilder's statements."

"You can say a lot of things about Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic philosopher who was just fired as an adviser to the city of Rotterdam: vanity, intellectually wooliness, opportunism. But he has never pleaded for an Islamic state in Europe, let alone a violent revolution. He wants European Muslims to behave as democratic citizens. Certainly, he propagates an orthodox interpretation of Islam, but the tries to combine this with his mainly leftish political ideas. Politics, says Ramadan, should be inspired by the ethical impulse of faith. He may not always be tolerant, but he will always be a democrat.

"And yet Ramadan has now become another hate symbol among people who agree with Wilders. That is hardly surprising. If you start from the premise that Islam is a threat to Western society, and any openness towards Muslims in Europe is a cowardly collaboration with evil, then the kind of rapprochement which Ramadan is talking about becomes impossible."

One of Buruma's most important conclusions is that as a "consequence of the popularity of Wilders’ world image many highly educated immigrants no longer feel welcome in the Netherlands." As this blog consistently seeks to argue the development of alternative Islamic discourses by critical Muslims often takes place in the relative safety of academic and media freedom provided in Europe and North America. The ripple effect of curtailing these opportunities (intentionally or inadvertedly) can thus have dire consequences for any significant change in the political and intellectual climate in the Muslim world.

For the full version of Buruma's article, click here

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